Camp Strikes Creative Chord With Young Composers

The Walden School nurtures lifelong appreciation for the arts

If you're ever near Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire on a Saturday in July, you might see a group of hikers from the Walden School.

But more than likely, you will hear them. When they reach the top of a peak, they sing - not campfire songs, but classical music.

The Walden School is a summer music school for young composers, ages 9 to 18. They are all musically inclined, but not what you would call prodigies. What makes Walden unique is that it is the only school specifically tailored to give preteens and teenagers the tools to compose.

The school is located on the campus of the Dublin School, a boarding school. Each summer at the end of June, some 14 pianos arrive along with an impressive cadre of faculty and about three dozen students. Then, for five weeks, musical notes become almost as plentiful as dewdrops.

This year, 38 students from around the country - and two from Israel - have come to learn how to compose at Walden. The school, which has stayed deliberately small, is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Sarah Robinson, a student from Lambertville, N.J., who plays the flute, says she likes Walden's unique atmosphere. "You're surrounded by talented musicians and composers, but it's not intimidating."

The core of the teaching here is "musicianship," where improvisation and composition are considered pathways to discovery.

This misty morning, executive director Pat Plude teaches a musicianship class to seven students. They do drills gathered around a piano. "Think the notes, see them in your head," Ms. Plude encourages.

Seth Brenzel, Walden's outreach director, explains that such teaching encourages creativity organically. "Here, they sing it, read it, write it, play it, hear it, and then they create with it." Many compare the process to learning a language, whereby you must be fluent to create literature.

Down at the performance hall, third-time student Peter Krag is doing a self-critique. At age 11, he has composed a work being performed by cellist Tom Kraines, a visiting artist in the Peabody Trio; violist Jason Haney; and flutist-student Sarah Robinson.

Gary Monheit, Peter's composition teacher, sits beside him in the auditorium while the three musicians play Peter's piece-in-progress, lovely chamber music. One can only imagine that this is a magic moment for the 11-year-old: hearing his creation being played by accomplished musicians. They try different phrasing and ask Peter which he prefers.

Sitting in the audience, Mr. Brenzel whispers, "What really gives me goosebumps about this place is we take kids very seriously, especially adolescent kids. Who else does that?"

Most Walden students will go on to study music at college, but not all will make music their profession. Two things are sure to happen, say faculty members: Students will take this grounding on how to learn as a way to approach other things in life, and they will be arts supporters and advocates for life.

The philosophy behind Walden's creative approach to musical education originated with Grace Newsom Cushman, founder of the Junior Conservatory Camp, Walden's predecessor from 1940 to 1972. She believed that the most successful way to teach young people was through creativity, whereby students discover things for themselves and learn to think independently.

In Mr. Monheit's jazz class, for example, two students play the piano while the other five take a turn at improvising with an instrument or their voice. It is spontaneous, creative, and clearly fun for them.

Most arrive knowing how to read music and play an instrument. Few have ever written music before. The return rate is more than 50 percent, and word of mouth seems to buoy enrollment. This is the first year they've had a waiting list.

Swimming, hiking, and other recreation as well as entertainment by visiting artists balance out the rigors of daily classes, rehearsals, and coaching.

And for all the emphasis on individual freedom and artistic creativity, the camp runs on a strict daily regimen.

Courses vary each summer, depending on the faculty and the needs of students. Music of the 20th century, rhythmic training, and notation are usual offerings.

Rob Paterson is a composer and percussionist who is at Walden for a week as a visiting artist. "I didn't expect the high quality of students here," he says. "They're more creative than many college kids I've seen."

Mr. Paterson notes that the supportive atmosphere and the sensitivity for creativity give kids freedom to experiment. "The most amazing thing is when young people gain art appreciation, they have it throughout their lives. The greatness of humanity shines through with the arts."

While students get a lot of individual attention, there are also large-group activities. Every weekday at 11:30 a.m., everyone gathers for chorus, directed by dean Leo Wanenchak.

"Take a breath.... Now cool the hot soup," he says to warm up the chorus, which includes students, faculty, and faculty children. "Cool the hot soup, now give me an 'mmm' ... isn't it interesting how our body uses air?"

Later during an interview, Mr. Wanenchak and director Plude, who have been at Walden for about two decades, talk about the milestone of the anniversary.

"The organization matured in the past five years to the point where it can float on its own," Wanenchak says.

He notes that Walden alumnae are out there writing music for CBS News and the A&E cable network, as well as conducting symphonies and writing operas. "They're still rooted in what they learned here."

Says Plude: "I'm proud of our past and feel very hopeful of the future. It's not always easy, however. Arts organizations such as ours tends to be in a place not easy to find. We're not a chamber-music organization, not instrumental, and not college kids."

"I'd like to see some publications of student works and faculty works," says teacher Carol Prochazka, who notes that Walden's archives are full of beautiful pieces.

Marc Marinaccio, a second-year student and guitarist from Baltimore, says that before he came to Walden he didn't feel like a composer. "Now I can actually say I'm a composer, I create, and I write."

This week is Festival Week at Walden, where student works are performed and forums are moderated by visiting guest artists. But it is also a time when students start thinking about going home. Camaraderie exists at most camps, but it is especially strong at this community of like-minded musicians.

Summer Salz, a second-time student from New York City, notes that when she goes home, she'll miss her friends and teachers - "and I'll miss the good-night music."

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